Anthony Najem felt something was missing a few years back at the company he co-founded with Karl Meyer in 1987, and he was a little frustrated.
As Meyer Najem Corp. grew and started to change, the challenges involved in adapting along the way became more evident. Some employees weren’t real keen on adjusting to change. They were finding it hard to become more engaged just because of the demands on their workloads — those demands and work-life balances became a key issue.
“As an owner and founder, you get the pulse about what’s happening in the company,” Najem says. “What you find is that people tend to not want change. People become complacent. How do you override the feeling of, ‘Oh, I don’t want to change,’”?
On its way to reaching $62 million in annual revenue with 65 employees, the company started out in light commercial construction and found its niche in health care, institutional, biosciences and other related markets.
“Change is inherent today; it’s much more rapid, so the employees have to start to develop many more skill sets within their role in the company,” Najem says. “And the big one is open and honest communication and dialogue. Once the leaders understand what the individuals are thinking, then you have a much better opportunity to discuss those and come up with plans that will help develop those individuals so they can achieve some of their goals and realize the purpose of their contribution to the whole.
“So what happens is an awakening of how you can take everybody to the next level,” Najem says.
“We brought in some experts to help assess the qualities of the leaders and the next generation of leadership and how we could make them fully aware of their strengths and their blind spots and how they could develop as leaders and as high-performance individuals. We spent a lot of time in that process, we invested a lot of energy and we are starting to see the dividends.
“The energy now with the company is at a high level,” he says. “High performance is not achieved just out of accident. There is a lot of work that goes into being a high-performance or a best of class contractor.”
Here’s how Najem developed a process to awaken employees and key management in a collaborative effect to reach new heights.
Introduce new skill sets
You’ve probably heard it over and over — engaged employees are key to a company’s success. A positive workplace relationship between employee and employer is critical to unlocking productivity complacency. Once Najem realized that achieving positive relationships starts with an improved communication effort — which coincidentally is one of the skill sets that managers and employees often need to develop, he had a plan.
“Stress management and critical thinking are the types of skills we started to develop with our employees and their key management over the last five years because when you receive that feedback, then you have to implement things to help develop those skill sets,” Najem says. “So we instituted a process — coaching/mentoring — that starts with the ownership and works all the way through the company.
In this project, there are 23 current leaders and the next generation of leaders who meet in an environment to see what it is like to experience that part of the company culture.
“When you are sitting in a room with 23 out of 65 employees, you start to see the emerging ones,” Najem says. “But you also get to see that there are people who start to understand how important they are to the whole process and the whole success of the company.
“You may have an estimator who is quite happy being an estimator. But he may take on an outside leadership role in a strategic initiative that comes out of the strategic planning process. We will typically have three to five a year that will emerge as leaders.
The emerging leaders are assigned to those who head a company committee.
“That’s how we move forward with our challenges,” he says. “With that process, you really start to see who is stepping up, who will do whatever it takes. So we’re trying to develop a culture where everybody’s doing whatever it takes without any excuses. There are no excuses because there are so many resources they can tap to make things happen.
“We want an openness policy, which is so important, and the freedom to say, ‘I don’t know that answer. Let me find who within the company can help me with that,’” Najem says. “That’s the fun part of the business; when you create that type of an environment — everybody’s helping each other regardless of what their role or their job description is. That kind of creates a lot of fun.”
As the coaching starts to occur, communication starts to develop naturally and organically.
“Then they start communicating with everybody in the field and throughout the rest of the company,” he says. “The challenge you always have is the home office versus field office and how do you communicate. How do you keep them attuned to what’s happening in the home office? We didn’t want them to feel like they were on an island.”
Many companies practice continuous strategic planning. It’s been a part of Meyer Najem, which celebrates its 25th year this month, and has been more inclusive in the last five years as more efforts have been initiated to engage employees.
“To get people engaged and empowered, you’ve got to also include them in that planning process,” Najem says. “Then you also have to get people to develop self-awareness of who they are and what they bring to the process. Self-awareness is very critical with engagement and in receiving honest and authentic communication.
“Get them involved, get them to create dialogue where they are giving you their true assessments of the discussion so that their voices are being heard, they are being trusted, that what they say you are listening to and so forth.”
A complacency mindset among a manager or an employee indicates contentment with the status quo. In that situation, you may not push the envelope or expand your boundaries. You will just coast along.
Your goal, however, is not to be happy just coasting, but to build your self-awareness so that you feel a sense of stewardship for the company, a sense of ownership.
“How do you create the next level of leaders to understand what it’s like to be an owner, not of the company but an owner of the project?” Najem asks. “You start to develop in employees the thinking: ‘I’m not just a taskmaster. I am also a great communicator.’ ‘I’m not just a good project manager but I’m a good leader.’
“Just change the dynamics of how they think about it, how they assess a challenge and then how do they go about getting it,” he says. “It’s through more of a collaborative effort than ‘I’m on the island by myself.’ I mean, it’s an everybody’s-in-it-together-type of thing.”
The theme that Najem was hoping for was that employees are all one within the company and that it takes all of us to create success.
“I just think it is so important that people realize how important they are to the whole, and that’s how we’ve organically grown this company — to get them engaged and empowered,” he says.
If a company is showing signs of complacency, it’s time to press the “undo” button. The company probably will have unofficially developed an internal compartmental status and employees have parceled themselves into their own departments or within groups. This situation goes against the grain of teamwork and needs to be rectified.
“What we did was we broke down some walls, we tipped over some silos about how people think and how they compartmentalized themselves,” Najem says.
“I think we achieved getting everybody to think as one and how they fit into one entity, whether it’s a sheet of music or a puzzle, everybody found their place in the puzzle or in the sheet of music. It really helped everybody understand why they are important and why their voice is so critical to hear to develop success.”
At first, there was some skepticism. After all, the apple cart was being tipped over. Najem held sessions with all employees to initially deal with some skepticism, but also some enthusiasm.
“They kind of had this wait-and-see attitude, but what was really validating was that everybody was there,” Najem says. “From the owners to everybody, I mean everybody was in the room at the same time doing the same things, fully engaged, and fully committed to ensuring that there were good things to happen moving forward.
“I can honestly tell you that there was a lot of trust that came into play that allowed for some very authentic communication.”
And at that point, it is easier than you think to see if you are getting employee buy-in. Look for some subtle clues.
“When you are sitting around in a room with folks, and they start to squirm, you know they have some body language that you get from them, and then if they open up and start talking, and they are committed to participating, that’s probably one of the biggest spots of where you see if somebody is engaged or not,” Najem says.
If employees don’t feel threatened when they express their opinions, it shows trust.
“But leaders have to show up with trust,” he says. “You’ve got to show up with it because if you don’t, then you won’t get that. You won’t get that shared dialogue.
“You have to start it by communicating what are the intentions and the goals of the meeting. You’ve got to be able to communicate it effectively, and then you’ve got to create an atmosphere that allows that.
“You want to go to a neutral place where people are away from the daily grind so you almost have to condition them into allowing themselves to say, ‘I’m taking my hat off, my 8-to-5 hat, I’m coming into a leadership or another role that is going to allow me to be a contributing part to the vision of the company,” he says.
Team-building exercises are often used so employees will start to build trust, and you can mix up the varieties.
“There are all kinds of techniques to do that,” Najem says. “You can switch from go-kart racing to lighting a fire with flint and rubbing sticks together. We like to have fun. You’ll do team building through that.
“The team building process starts to allow them to start to trust. Then they start to have some dialogue that becomes authentic and less threatening. And so everybody is starting to get more comfortable with each other. You can’t just open up and say, ‘OK, this is an open forum. Give me your thoughts.’ So it’s been kind of fun watching this develop. Then you really start to see it within the hallways and offices and just the way the people communicate with each other.”
External and internal communications become even more of a greater need when change is occurring and you’ve got to get everybody to hear the same thing. Najem started quarterly company meetings for all employees as a first step. This effort regularly helps employees stay in the loop.
More and more, technology is making it easier to communicate. Companies are regularly developing intranets to get information regarding issues ranging from training to opportunities that exist within the company and with outside of the company. They are also using additional means of staying in touch with each other on the job.
“With the institution of iPads, it’s pretty amazing what you can do,” Najem says. “iChat, where you can see the person, has become a big thing in the last year.
“Trying to get everybody to stay connected has been a challenge but we are doing it through those types of means,” he says. “It’s been interesting to see how technology can help you.”
Keep them challenged
With employee engagement, there is no finish line. There’s no point when everyone is as engaged as they possibly can be and there are no new frontiers to explore. The best rule of thumb is that once you feel you have mastered it, you have to start all over.
“You have to continuously keep them challenged,” Najem says. “What happens if you don’t is that they become complacent, and tend not to be as engaged as you’d want them to be.”
New, creative teambuilding efforts have to continue, as do motivational efforts geared toward a multigenerational workforce, which is becoming more prevalent in companies today. Opportunities to discuss and air concerns should be encouraged.
“Healthy dialogue and debate is relevant to company culture because it creates possibilities,” Najem says. “When we have healthy dialogue, we have possibilities and people understand the difference, and when someone starts to argue, they get pretty much shut off. We say, ‘You were off task. Let’s get back to task. It’s important.’
“What really empowers people to do well is knowing where things lie – what’s the most important thing – so that they now have purpose,” he says. “Having purpose tends to allow them to not think so critically about the tasks. They think bigger. They think about how this is all going to result so that they can have a better work/life balance.”
How to reach: Meyer Najem Corp., (317) 577-0007 or www.meyer-najem.com
The Najem file
Born: Indianapolis. I moved to Houston after graduation from college and worked for a co-generator of power and steam. I moved back in 1987 to start in business with my partner Karl Meyer.
Education: Purdue University. I received a degree in building construction management.
What was your first job?
My first job was at the U.S. Postal Service. I was a mail sorter and a dock person. I will remember the job because it was a job I never wanted to do again. Sorting mail was not my cup of tea. But it paid well because it was a federal job. I think I was 15 and I saved enough money to buy my first car. I spent $4,200 for TR-6 Triumph. By the time I turned 16, I had my dream of buying my first sports car.
What was the best business advice you ever received?
I worked in Houston for company called Power Systems Engineering. There are many guys there who were just the best of the best. I remember when I was talking to a couple of them about starting my own business. They said to start a business when you are young because when you get older, it’s tougher to leave the career to start something new. The one thing that I can add to that is that I was told you should learn from someone else’s mistakes and then try not to make them. That was probably the more provocative, so I worked for somebody for seven years before ventured out to do my own thing.
Who do you admire in business?
I admire business leaders who balance their success with family and community. I just know that there are great leaders out there, and many of them are challenged by the daily grind of the business. And when I see individuals including myself that try to balance that, it’s not an easy deal.
What is your definition of business success?
Success comes in all forms. From the great referral letter that you receive for a job well done, to recognizing the employees on the job, to receiving the Crystal Eagle award, which we did, a validation of zero injury from your peers, to the local newspaper voting you a top work place all of the last three years — those are all validations of success. It’s not one thing. But it’s just a host of things. But what we really try to employ here is we want to exceed our client expectations. We’ve always, always instilled that into our people that client satisfaction is No. 1.